Editorial | United States Must Begin Walking the Walk

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The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama has made international cooperation a major theme of its approach to space activity, but developments in the year now coming to a close have done more to discourage than encourage current and prospective U.S. partners.

Most recently, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) formally informed its European counterpart, Eumetsat, that it would not be able to supply a key instrument for Eumetsat’s next-generation polar-orbiting weather satellite program. Eumetsat was counting on NOAA for the Advanced Technology Microwave Sounder, which takes vertical profiles of atmospheric humidity and temperature and is one of the primary sensors on the U.S. polar-orbiting system. Eumetsat has made clear that it needs the sounder, or something similar, for the two-satellite Eumetsat Polar System-Second Generation.

Mary Kicza, NOAA assistant administrator for satellite and information services, reiterated NOAA’s commitment to Eumetsat’s program and said the agencies will continue to work closely together, coordinating their activities and sharing data. While undoubtedly true, this is small consolation to Eumetsat, which will now have to replan its system and scrape together new financing for a sounding instrument.

On top of that, NOAA appears to be hedging on its agreement to provide a launch for Jason-3, the latest in a series of ocean altimetry satellites that began in the 1990s as a NASA-French space agency collaboration and has evolved into an operational mission involving the U.S. and European weather satellite agencies.

This is not NOAA’s fault, of course — like just about every other U.S. government agency, it does not have the funding it needs to execute all of its planned programs. The United States faces a gap in its own polar weather satellite coverage due to a combination of factors including a disastrous attempt to merge the nation’s civil and military weather satellite systems — a program that was beset with problems before being canceled — and Congress’ inability to pass a budget for 2011, which kept federal spending at prior-year levels.

The cancellation of NOAA’s instrument contribution to Eumetsat’s second-generation system is just the latest example of U.S. retrenchment on international space programs. NASA this year informed the European Space Agency (ESA) that it would be unable to participate in ESA’s next large L-class science mission, two of three candidate concepts for which featured a substantial U.S. contribution. NASA also scaled back its involvement in ExoMars, upending a 2009 agreement under which the U.S. agency was to launch a European-built orbiter in 2016 and supply a rover to launch, along with a European rover, on a U.S. rocket in 2018. The European Space Agency is still waiting to hear whether NASA will be able to participate in the 2018 mission, but the White House seems in no hurry to commit.

The U.S. government is flirting with a reputation as an unreliable partner in international space projects. That’s not the message Washington wants to be sending, especially at a time when budgetary pressures are making it increasingly difficult to go it alone on space projects. In a letter to Space News, Ms. Kicza captured that very point: “As we face tough budgetary realities on both sides of the Atlantic, our partnership with Eumetsat will become more important, not less.”

Europe’s budget woes are at least as serious as those of the United States, and ESA and Eumetsat have seen their share of ups and downs on funding. As multinational agencies, they’ve had to work through these kinds of issues, which perhaps is why they are showing considerable patience with their U.S. counterparts.

It’s high time the U.S. government demonstrate that it values international cooperation as more than kindling for feel-good rhetoric, and it can do that by taking concrete steps to shore up its reputation as a partner.